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Ibsen’s "Peer Gynt"
by [?]

The poet, by giving Solveig the last word, seems to think it possible. According to Mr. Archer, the Ibsen of to-day would know it to be impossible. He knows (none better) that “No man can save his brother’s soul or pay his brother’s debt.” “No, nor women neither,” adds Mr. Archer.

Is Peer’s Redemption a romantic Fallacy?

But is this so? Peer Gynt was published in 1867. I turn to A Doll’s House, written twelve years later, and I find there a woman preparing to redeem a man just as Solveig prepares to redeem Peer. I find in Mr. Archer’s translation of that play the following page of dialogue:–

Mrs. Linden: There’s no happiness in working for oneself, Nils; give me somebody and something to work for.

Krogstad: No, no; that can never be. It’s simply a woman’s romantic notion of self-sacrifice.

Mrs. Linden: Have you ever found me romantic?

Krogstad: Would you really–? Tell me, do you know my past?

Mrs. Linden: Yes.

Krogstad: And do you know what people say of me?

Mrs. Linden: Didn’t you say just now that with me you could have been another man?

Krogstad: I am sure of it.

Mrs. Linden: Is it too late?

Krogstad: Christina, do you know what you are doing? Yes, you do; I see it in your face. Have you the courage–?

Mrs. Linden: I need someone to tend, and your children need a mother. You need me, and I–I need you. Nils, I believe in your better self. With you I fear nothing.

Ibsen’s hopes of Enfranchised Women.

Again, we are not told if Mrs. Linden’s experiment is successful; but Ibsen certainly gives no hint that she is likely to fail. This was in 1879. In 1885 Ibsen paid a visit to Norway and made a speech to some workingmen at Drontheim, in which this passage occurred:–

“Democracy by itself cannot solve the social question. We must introduce an aristocratic element into our life. I am not referring, of course, to an aristocracy of birth, or of purse, or even of intellect. I mean an aristocracy of character, of will, of mind. That alone can make us free. From two classes will this aristocracy I desire come to us–from our women and our workmen. The social revolution, now preparing in Europe, is chiefly concerned with the future of the workers and the women. On this I set all my hopes and expectations….”

I think it would be easy to multiply instances showing that, though Ibsen may hold that no man can save his brother’s soul, he does not extend this disability to women, but hopes and believes, on the contrary, that women will redeem mankind. On men he builds little hope. To speak roughly, men are all in Peer Gynt’s case, or Torvald Helmer’s. They are swathed in timid conventions, blindfolded with selfishness, so that they cannot perceive, and unable with their own hands to tear off these bandages. They are incapable of the highest renunciation. “No man,” says Torvald Helmer, “sacrifices his honor, even for one he loves.” Those who heard Miss Achurch deliver Nora’s reply will not easily forget it. “Millions of women have done so.” The effect in the theatre was tremendous. This sentence clinched the whole play.

Millions of women are, like Solveig, capable of renouncing all for love, of surrendering self altogether; and, as I read Ibsen, it is precisely on this power of renunciation that he builds his hope of man’s redemption. So that, unless I err greatly, the scene in Peer Gynt which Mr. Archer calls a shirking of the ethical problem, is just the solution which Ibsen has been persistent in presenting to the world.

Let it be understood, of course, that it is only your Solveigs and Mrs. Lindens who can thus save a brother’s soul: women who have made their own way in the world, thinking for themselves, working for themselves, freed from the conventions which man would impose on them. I know Mr. Archer will not retort on me with Nora, who leaves her husband and children, and claims that her first duty is to herself. Nora is just the woman who cannot redeem a man. Her Doll’s House training is the very opposite of Solveig’s and Mrs. Linden’s. She is a silly girl brought up amid conventions, and awakened, by one blow, to the responsibilities of life. That she should at once know the right course to take would be incredible in real life, and impossible in a play the action of which has been evolved as inevitably as real life. Many critics have supposed Ibsen to commend Nora’s conduct in the last act of the play. He neither sanctions nor condemns. But he does contrast her in the play with Mrs. Linden, and I do not think that contrast can be too carefully studied.